The Hero Europe Needed

tags: Vaclav Havel, Velvet Revolution

Michael Ignatieff, the Edward R. Murrow Professor of the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, is the author of Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics.

Heroism is essential to politics. We live for the hour when a politician stands up in Theodore Roosevelt’s dusty arena and we recognize, with astonishment, that here is a person prepared to take risks, tell us what we don’t want to hear, face possible defeat for a principle, tackle insuperable odds, and by doing so, show us that politics need be not just the art of the possible, but the art of the impossible.

We are short of heroes everywhere these days, but particularly in politics. The Arab Spring appears to have consumed the leaders who rose up in the Cairo streets. In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has learned that it may actually be easier to be a saint than a politician. For the moment at least, she seems to have lost the moral voice she once possessed in captivity. There are political heroes aplenty in China, but most of them are in jail. In Russia, heroic resistance to tyranny survives in the offices of Memorial, the nongovernmental organization now suffering persecution; elsewhere, the political elites are cravenly riding in Putin’s chariot, even if they have no idea where he is taking them. In Europe, Angela Merkel inspires respect for competence, not for courage; François Hollande struggles to convey authority; and David Cameron seems content to be an imitation of a prime minister, not the unyielding, decisive thing itself. As for President Obama, he had courage in abundance once, when he launched that seemingly impossible bid for the presidency. Now, as we commend his prudence and circumspection, we also ask, where has his audacity gone?

To find courage in the public realm, to remember what it can do to transform our hopes for politics itself, we have to go back to the canonical leaders of 1989 and 1990. The times demanded bravery, and leaders aplenty rose to the occasion. Gorbachev showed courage in not using force to hold his empire together. Mandela’s toughness and magnanimity guided South Africa from apartheid to black majority rule. In Poland, the shipyard worker Lech Wałęsa led his country to freedom. In Czechoslovakia, a playwright named Václav Havel defied imprisonment and intimidation to become the president of a free country.

A magnificent biography of Havel, by Michael Zantovsky, allows us to take the measure of his heroism in a new and complicated way. It helps us to think about the mystery of courage—why, in the case of Havel, bravery managed to take command of such a mild, inward intellectual, and such a flawed human being. The surprises in Zantovsky’s depiction begin with the photograph on the cover. Havel is disheveled, in a rumpled sweater over an open-necked shirt, running a hand through unkempt hair. He looks as if he wants the photographer to leave him in peace. Here is a man at bay, tired, disconsolate, at a loss for words—a man thinking, What the hell has happened to me?

Seeing a hero in disarray delivers a jolt. We’d much prefer to remember the triumphant images of a vanished era, when Havel spoke to a thronged Wenceslas Square in November 1989, when the “power of the powerless” propelled him from prison to the presidency. For those in my generation, who came of age in 1968, he defined what it was “to live in truth,” as he put it—what it was to wield political power without, or so we believed, being destroyed by it. ...

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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